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“Incisive, smart and incredibly fun . . .

an instantly indispensable book for


aspiring screenwriters. This book is destined to be dog-eared from constant use,
and will sit next to Adventures in the Screen Trade and Save the Cat as the gold
standard on how to get your script written, sold, and most importantly: made.”
—Richard Shepard, writer/director (The Matador; Dom Hemingway; The Perfection)

“Diamond and Weissman have written the ultimate how-to guide for writing
inside the studio system with lessons that can only be learned from years of
experience on the front lines and at the highest levels. This book contains all
the things an aspiring writer needs to know that they will not be taught in film
school.”
—Sean Perrone manager, Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment

“A practical, funny, and down-to-Earth insider’s guide that covers everything


from script development to what it’s really like working in “the industry” —
from people who have actually done it.
—Etan Cohen, writer, (Idiocracy; Tropic Thunder; Men in Black 3)

“I love this book. Truly. It’s like having lunch with David and David, albeit with
charts and one-pagers mixed in with the hummus and salad.”
—Sascha Penn, writer (Creed 2; Power)

“Finally a screenwriting book by two incredibly talented, accomplished people


on the front lines who’ve actually written hit movies.”
—Peter Steinfeld, writer (21; Be Cool; Drowning Mona; Analyze That)

“I reallllly wish I’d had this book when I started writing. It would have saved me
years of figuring it out.”
—Will Akers, Chair and head of screenwriting, Curb College of Entertainment & Music
Business, Belmont University

“Diamond & Weissman are like talmudic brain surgeons when it comes to
screenwriting. Thankfully, they’ve put all their wisdom into this amazing book,
which is way better than any other screenwriting book.”
—Roger Kumble writer, director (Cruel Intentions; The Sweetest Thing)

“Diamond and Weissman have a unique style that uses the head and the heart
to create stories that are universal and irresistible.”
—Jon Shestack, producer (Air Force One; Dan In Real Life)

“The Davids have written an accessible, relatable and indispensable guide to


how to take a story from nascent idea to a great screenplay. No matter your
level of experience, it’s a must read for anyone who cares about story.”
—Jonathan Glickman, president, MGM Motion Picture Group
“As screenwriters, Diamond & Weissman possess the rare talent of being able
to write from the heart — and in Bulletproof they reveal their process in a
pragmatic way that any writer, novice or experienced, can benefit from.”
—Jonathan Mostow, writer/director (Breakdown; U-571; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)

DAVID DIAMOND | DAVID WEISSMAN


“(Bulletproof ) changed the way I think about my screenwriting. A must read for
every screenwriter, from the novice to the professional.”

bullet
—Jonathan Fernandez, writer (Rob the Mob), Writers Guild of America Board of Directors

“The mix of practical but savvy, easy to understand advice and personal insights
is both extraordinarily educational but surprisingly encouraging. I recommend
this book for screenwriters at any level.”

proof
—David J. Greenberg, University of the Arts/Drexel University

“I loved it! I read it in one sitting. It’s so honest. I think it would be really
helpful for anyone daring to enter. . . . it made me want to write a script.”
—Holly Bario, president of production, DreamWorks Studios

“The book is filled with nuggets to hone your skills and make your script
bulletproof, so that you can thrive and succeed in the network, studio, and
streaming universes.”
—Dr. Selise E. Eiseman, screenwriter and film and education professor

“What’s so incredible about Bulletproof is that it’s as ‘inside’ a book about writing
Hollywood scripts as has been written. I love the Davids, and I love their book.”
—Bert Salke, president Fox 21 Television Studios
Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down
“The closest I’ve found to the ‘secret sauce’ that can help get scripts sold and
produced.”
—Elliot Grove, founder, Raindance Film Festival & British Independent Film Awards

They say write what you know. But as I know incredibly little, thank the lord
Diamond & Weissman have written this book. I truly wish I had it when I was
starting out.”
—David Berenbaum, writer (Elf; The Haunted Mansion; The Spiderwick Chronicles)

“Where was Bulletproof when I needed it? Oh, wait I still need it! A great how-
to for the first-time writer; an equally essential refresher for the veteran.”
—John Eisendrath, co-creator (The Blacklist), writer-producer (Alias)

“Before I was even halfway through, I began applying their techniques to


make my next script bulletproof. Their advice is so good, they may try to
commission me ten percent!”
—Chris Brancato, co-creator and showrunner (Narcos; Godfather of Harlem)
Published by Michael Wiese Productions To our wives, Audrey and Diane,
12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111
Studio City, CA 91604
and the kids,
(818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (Fax) Hannah, Harry, and Benjamin, Ike and Oren.
mw@mwp.com
www.mwp.com
If not for you
Manufactured in the
United States of America Winter would have no spring
Couldn’t hear the robin sing
Copyright © 2019 David Diamond and David Weissman I just wouldn’t have a clue
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by Anyway it wouldn’t ring true
any means without permission in writing from the publisher, except for the If not for you
inclusion of brief quotations in a review. —Bob Dylan
This book was set in Garamond Premier Pro and Gotham

Cover design by Johnny Ink. johnnyink.com


Interior design by Debbie Berne
Copyediting by Sherry Parnes

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Diamond, David, 1965- author. | Weissman, David, author.


Title: Bulletproof: writing scripts that don’t get shot down /
by David Diamond & David Weissman.
Description: Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, [2019] |
Includes bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018043047 | ISBN 9781615932993
Subjects: LCSH: Motion picture authorship—­Vocational guidance.
Classification: LCC PN1996 .D485 2019 | DDC 808.2/3—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018043047
contents

Preface ix 6 The Bulletproof Set Piece . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81


Introduction xv
What’s a Set Piece? | Building Your Set Pieces

1 The Bulletproof Movie Idea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1


7 Writing the Bulletproof Screenplay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
The Difference Between an Idea for a Movie and an Idea
for a Screenplay | Anatomy of a Movie Idea: The Three The Opening | The Nuts and Bolts | Sluglines | Character
C’s | Vetting Your Idea | The Logline | Finding Your Idea’s Description | Action | Dialogue | Transitions and Segues |
Place in the Landscape: Studio vs. Indie Ideas | Is This the It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint | One Last Thing . . .
Idea for Me?
8 The Bulletproof Rewrite. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107
2 Finding Bulletproof Models. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 Delivering on Your Promise . . . And Your Premise |
Taking Your Place at the Table | Watching with a Discerning Delivering on Your Characters | The Cut Pass: Pacing and
Eye | Finding Inspiration in Those Who’ve Come Before Page Count

3 The Bulletproof “One-Pager”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29 9 The Bulletproof Submission. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115


A Basic Grasp of Story Structure | What Your Movie’s About Penetrating the Barriers to Entry | They Like It,
vs. What Your Movie’s Really About | How Your Story Will Now What . . . ? | Be Strong and of Good Courage
Play Out | The Story of Your Movie on One Page
Afterward 129
4 Building Bulletproof Characters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47 Acknowledgments 137

The Tested Lead | The Likable Lead | The Castable Lead | Glossary of Terms  138
The Chart Summary Points and Suggested Exercises  146
Set Piece Illustration: The Breast Pump Sequence
from Paternity Leave 158
5 Building the Bulletproof Outline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
About the Authors  162
The Meld | Connective Tissue | Subplots: B Stories, C
Stories, and “Runners” | The Outline | Outline, Treatment,
or Pitch Document
preface

This book is the product of about five hundred cups of coffee. That
is, give or take a few dozen cups, the amount of caffeine the two of
us have ingested over the past twenty-five years, meeting with aspiring
screenwriters to share our experience and provide guidance, support,
or advice. At a certain point, about a year ago, it occurred to us to put as
much as we could of what we tended to share with others in one place,
where it could be accessible to anyone who may be interested; all for
the relatively low cost of a few Grande Frappuccinos.
We are not screenwriting teachers or story gurus. We’re not academ-
ics or experts on dramaturgy, mythology and archetypes, film theory or
analysis. We’re screenwriters. We write movies. Some get made, some
don’t. We write original scripts, we adapt books. We work on assign-
ment and we sell pitches. We start at the very beginning, from the very
first spark of an idea, and we come in at the end, providing a week or
more of production polish to scripts that are getting made as a result
of years of work by other writers, sometimes numerous other writers.
The movies we’ve worked on, credited and uncredited, over the course
of our career have earned over a billion dollars worldwide. We’re part
of a small cadre of proud, if not particularly influential, screenwriters
whose careers have endured and thrived well into a third decade. In
that time, we’ve accumulated a considerable amount of practical expe-
rience and we’ve developed a writing process that’s been helpful to us
and effective at getting us, in the best cases, from that first spark of
creative inspiration through production. It’s that process, and the bul-
letproof approach that’s evolved along with it, that we’re sharing now
in the form of this practical guide.
What do we mean by “bulletproof ?”
Put simply, the bulletproof approach is about getting to “yes” in
a town where everyone — agents, producers, executives, even script
readers — is predisposed to saying no. It’s a way to view every stage of
bulletproof preface

the writing process, from concept to final polish, from the perspective sources and big packages — filmmakers and stars — to drive interest in
of the folks you’re trying to sell to, thus avoiding some of the most com- their product and attract viewers. Still, the truth is that the spec screen-
mon pitfalls and barriers to entry. It’s a way of approaching screenwrit- play remains the best way for an aspiring screenwriter to gain entry into
ing that recognizes upfront how collaborative a process moviemaking the movie business. Even successful, seasoned writers are turning to
is, and views the discerning eyes of future partners as necessary and packaging spec scripts to get original movies made. And yet, it’s harder
helpful pieces in a common creative pursuit. And it’s never been more than ever to get the attention of agents, producers, studio executives,
essential than it is today. and other buyers. What do you do? How do you understand the crit-
The market for spec scripts and original movies is more challenging ical difference between a screenplay that can advance your career and
now than it has been in all the years we’ve been in the business. Back one that gathers dust on a shelf ? What does it take to bridge that gap?
in the 1990’s, when we were starting out, scripts were selling for multi- These are the questions this book will help you answer.
ple millions of dollars, oftentimes more than one in a given week. The A general note on screenwriting books. With the exception of
trades, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter (this was pre-Dead- William Goldman’s classic Adventures in the Screen Trade, we didn’t
line; pre-internet in fact), were filled with announcements of spec read them until we started to write one of our own. Most of them seem
sales from new and established writers — Shane Black, Joe Eszterhas, to have something to offer — insightful analyses of movies that have
Ron Bass. Our first spec sale was one of them.* If you follow Deadline gotten it right and wrong, practical suggestions, strategies for getting
now, or any of the other industry sites, you’ll notice that it’s become from start to finish and confronting the rough patches that inevita-
relatively rare to see news of a spec or pitch sale. More common is the bly occur in between, elaborate theories of storytelling and structure
announcement of which established writer has been assigned the latest that may have merit and prove helpful. The guides written by work-
installment of this or that effects-driven franchise. Anything less than ing screenwriters with produced studio credits are fewer and farther
a bulletproof spec is immediately shot down. between, and they are qualitatively different. Read Save the Cat by
A 2013 article in Vanity Fair summed up the downward trend in Blake Snyder and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Lennon and
spec sales with this startling statistic, “In 1995, 173 specs were sold. In Garant. And, of course, Goldman’s gold standard, which still holds
2010 the number was 55, roughly where it had stood for at least half up almost thirty years later. These books are generally more practical
a decade.”** And that was 2013. The trend toward movies based on than the “systems” and theories of narrative construction developed by
previously existing material, intellectual property — comic books, tele- structure gurus and academics. Their approach tends to reflect the way
vision series, video games, old movies that can be remade, and barely scripts actually attract the attention of buyers and progress toward pro-
cold franchises rebooted — and away from original material has only duction. This book is intended to add to that conversation.
continued and grown in the years since. Even streaming services, which That said, use whatever helps. There’s no magic formula, and no one
offer promising new opportunities, seek content adapted from familiar expert — including us — has all the answers. Be very skeptical of any-
one who tells you otherwise, who guarantees success if you just follow
* “Wood in as Fox’s ‘Whiz Kid’” by Michael Fleming, Daily Variety March 28, their “simple steps.” The only one who can get you where you want to
1994.
** “When the Spec Script was King” by Margaret Heidenry, Vanity Fair,
go in your writing is you. We’re just trying to help.
February 8, 2013. Is this book for everybody? Probably not. Legend has it The Rolling

x xi
bulletproof preface

Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came to Keith Richards in a taking risks, making mistakes, honing your craft, and learning where
dream. He woke up, put the guitar riff down on a cassette player, and and how you fit into the special world you aspire to enter. There are no
went back to sleep. Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics in ten minutes the next shortcuts, but you can learn from other people’s experience and from
day, sitting by a motel pool. That’s the second-best rock and roll song their mistakes, and we have plenty of both to share.
of all time, after Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” according to Rolling Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, “If a person with a demonstrably
Stone magazine. We can quibble about the rankings, but that’s not the ordinary mind, like mine, will devote himself to giving birth to a work
point. The point is, we’re not all Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. We of the imagination, that work will in turn tempt and tease that ordi-
don’t all wake up in the middle of the night with the hook for one of nary mind into cleverness.”* Devoting yourself, that’s the key. After all,
the greatest songs ever written in our head and have the benefit of a even Keith Richards took guitar lessons.
writing partner who can put just the right lyrics to it in ten minutes
sitting poolside at a Florida motel. Some people just seem to have a gift
for conceiving fresh ideas and knowing exactly how to render them
most effectively. But most of us mortals need a process we can rely on
over time to coax our most creative impulses out of us, provide the dis-
cipline to execute them in the best possible way, and avoid the pitfalls
that can doom our work in the eyes of Hollywood.
Having a specific method you can count on — that you can use over
and over — might sound constraining, even antithetical to the creative
process. Or maybe you imagine it’s something that you use only in the
very beginning, when you’re first learning the craft, that becomes obso-
lete after you’ve made that first big spec sale and demonstrated that
you know what you’re doing. We tend to think of it more like batting
practice in the major leagues. Integrating a specific, consistent process
into your writing routine doesn’t guarantee you’ll knock it out of the
park every time you step up to the plate, but you stand a helluva better
chance than the batter who sits it out, choosing instead to rely solely on
raw talent. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book Outliers, none of
us, not even the geniuses among us, gets there on talent alone.* Success
requires both talent and a process, a regimen of regular and deliberate
practice, at least 10,000 hours in Gladwell’s estimation. That 10,000
hours of practice and process is your apprenticeship. It’s a time for

* Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Chapter Two “The 10,000-Hour Rule” * Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (Opinions) Preface, 1974

xii xiii
introduction

Think about yourself and the other aspiring writers you know. Most
go from concept to completed screenplay without ever stopping to
consider the reality of all that has to happen for that script to actually
sell. What exactly has to happen?
First, you need to get your script into the hands of someone who
can actually do something for you, even if “doing something for you”
merely means passing your script along to someone else who can do
something for you. Let’s just pause a moment to consider that. Think
of someone you know, or know of, who might be in a position to help
advance your script. It could be a friend or relative, could be some-
one you’ve worked for at an agency or production company, someone
you’ve met socially, or an industry professional you’ve been put in
touch with through a mutual friend or acquaintance. What motivates
them to hand your script to an agent, producer, or executive and say,
“You have to read this!”? It’s a rhetorical question. We’re actually going
to tell you the answer. The answer is that passing along your script has
to reflect well on them. It has to benefit them.
This is a business, not a fairy tale or a family reunion. Nobody in
the movie business recommends a screenplay with the sole intention
of helping a writer realize their dreams. They pass along a screenplay
because doing so will reflect well on them and possibly benefit them
in some way — either because the script is great or because it’s enor-
mously commercial, ideally both. In a business built on relationships
and reputations, where there’s too much material and not enough time
to process and evaluate it all, it is absolutely essential to be discrim-
inating. You may be wrong. The number of people who rejected the
script for Star Wars has become the stuff of legend. But you still have
to be discriminating. You can only recommend the material you genu-
inely believe in, the writers you can truly get behind. If people disagree,
they disagree. But if they think you’re just submitting a script for the

xv
bulletproof introduction

hell of it, because your nephew wrote it, then you’ve taken them and the process of fashioning a screenplay that concerns itself with good
their time for granted, you lose your credibility, and that avenue will ideas and storytelling, adhering to the conventions of Hollywood story
no longer be open to you, or to any writer who hopes to gain access structure, and also takes into account the extent to which that screen-
through you. play must serve the needs and interests of all the various creative and
This is the case with the first person you hand your script to, and financial stakeholders in the movie. 
with every person who follows them in the Hollywood chain. Now The time we’ve spent, and the hundreds of cups of coffee we’ve con-
consider the chain. An agent or manager has to read your script and sumed in conversation with aspiring writers over the years, is a perk
say, “It will benefit me to give this to a producer.” The producer then of the job. Sometimes there’s a follow-up coffee, a continuing conver-
has to read it and say, “It will benefit me to give this to X or Y director.” sation. Most often, though, it’s an hour or two of sharing our experi-
The director has to read it and say “It will benefit me to spend a year or ence and perspective, and then we part ways. With this book, we’re
two of my life making this movie, or at the very least to expend some sticking with you, the writer, the whole way; from the germ of your
capital at the studio to attach myself and develop it.” Then the studio idea, through your outline or treatment, to your finished screenplay
executive has to read it and say, “It will benefit me to invest our limited and beyond. This book is the bottomless cup of coffee that hopes to
time and development dollars in this script with this director and this meet you as a writer with a dream, and not leave you until you’re a
producer,” . . . and on and on and on. You get the idea. member of the community of working screenwriters. To do that, we’re
We can mix up the elements in a hundred different ways but, at the going to have to go well beyond simply completing your script. We’re
end of the day, selling screenplays is essentially an extended game of It going to have to examine every aspect of your idea, your process, and
will benefit me. If you’ve ever believed Hollywood exists to make your your screenplay, and make sure they’re Bulletproof (trademark, patent
dreams come true you should dispense with that notion right now. The pending). Together, we’re going to disarm the naysayers by building
first step in writing the bulletproof screenplay is recognizing that just your story and fashioning your screenplay in a way that anticipates
the opposite is true. It’s the writer who takes it upon him or herself to their needs and concerns, captures their imaginations, and inspires
make everyone else’s dreams come true. That is, more often than not, their enthusiasm. This is what the business requires of us all, especially
the way scripts get sold and produced. today. It is, we believe, an investment well worth making. After all, what
So it’s on you to deliver a piece of material that will move and ben- good is writing a movie in 90, 30, or even 21 days if no one buys it?
efit everyone else in the Hollywood chain — an agent or manager, a
producer, a director, an actor, and a studio or financier — when every
link in that chain represents another possibility and threat of a “PASS.”
That’s what this book, and the bulletproof approach, is about — scru-
tinizing every choice from the perspective of story and character and
through the lens of the folks who will need to say “YES” and come aboard
to turn your vision into a reality.
In the following chapters, we’ll call on our experience with our
own projects, as well as other familiar movies, to guide you through

xvi xvii
chapter one

the bulletproof
movie idea
Writing a movie you hope to sell and proceed to production is like
running a gauntlet, like Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance try-
ing to destroy the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. At any given
moment, a new obstacle can emerge, stopping you in your tracks, or
sending you right back to square one. Luke’s best and only hope in Star
Wars was The Force. Yours is a great movie idea. It’s been said that you
can make a bad movie from a good script but you cannot make a good
movie from a bad script. And you certainly can’t write a good script
from a bad idea, or from no idea at all. So it’s important to understand,
before you proceed any further in the process, what a viable movie idea
is, and how to formulate an idea that is not just serviceable, but really
good, or great . . . or bulletproof.

1
bulletproof the bulletproof movie idea

Who’s to say whether your idea is the greatest to come along since The Difference Between an Idea for a Movie
Citizen Kane or the worst since 2004’s Sex Lives of the Potato Men? Isn’t and an Idea for a Screenplay
that an entirely subjective distinction? The answer is yes and no. Of
course it’s subjective, and there will always be people who respond to One thing many less experienced, and even some more experienced
your ideas with greater and lesser degrees of enthusiasm. But the mar- screenwriters sometimes fail to appreciate is that there’s a difference
ket has a voice and a vote, too. And it’s an important one. After all, you between an idea for a screenplay and an idea for a movie. A typical
want to sell your script, right? And selling your script requires a buyer. screenplay runs between 90 and 120 pages that are formatted in a
Does every movie that sells and gets made have a great idea behind it? particular way. In theory, if you downloaded Final Draft, the indus-
No. If you don’t sell your script, does that necessarily mean your idea try standard screenwriting app (which you should), and simply wrote
sucks? Of course not. Screenwriting and script sales are not a science a few scenes every day involving the same cast of characters, writing
and there are no absolutes. That said, in our experience and for our whatever happened to inspire you until you hit page 100, you could
practical purposes, a good idea is one that will turn the heads of agents reasonably say you’d completed your first screenplay. But have you
and producers and directors and actors and financiers. It’s an idea that written a movie? Not likely.
will advance your script and your career. The bulletproof screenplay is Writing a screenplay from a great idea may sound simple — so
one that presents its reader with a clear path to production. That path simple, in fact, that many who have never, and will never actually sit
will inevitably be riddled with obstacles, setbacks, and detours, some down to write a screenplay happen to think they have a terrific idea
of them potentially insurmountable. That is precisely why your experi- for a movie! But do they? If you listen to the stories of non-writers
enced reader is looking for the best odds going in. who tell you they have a great idea you’ll often find that your friend, or
As we’re reminded all the time when vetting our own ideas, there’s relative, or the stranger you’ve just met in line at Trader Joe’s who you
a big difference between, Yeah, I get it, and I’ve gotta have it. Yeah, I were foolish enough to tell you were a writer, has mistaken something
get it is the response to a potentially viable, but familiar idea. Yeah, I that happened to them or someone they know for a movie idea. An
get it doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, it really doesn’t get you anywhere, incident, no matter how significant it may be to you, is not a movie idea
except perhaps another bite at the apple somewhere down the line, if simply because it really happened. Might it be built into a movie idea?
you’re lucky. I’ve gotta have it! can start your career, and if you deliver Possibly. That’s where character and context, and a deeper understand-
on the screenplay, it will likely start it in fifth gear. A bulletproof movie ing of the craft and the process, come in. It’s where a writer comes in.
idea — one that cannot be shot down — is harder to find than one But an episode from your life, in and of itself, is not a movie. The same
might imagine. Let’s explore the difference in these various gradations can be said of the people you or your friends or relatives know. Your
of movie ideas, what goes into them, and how to make the one you mother’s Pilates instructor, your auto mechanic, the eccentric uncle
choose to invest your time and energy into bulletproof. who exudes personality . . . these folks may all be very entertaining and
interesting people. They are not necessarily worthy and compelling
subjects for your next movie.
So how much is enough? And how much is too much? Before you
can make the idea for your movie bulletproof, you need to know how

2 3
bulletproof the bulletproof movie idea

much information, and specifically what information you need. What your lead could be Kevin Hart or it could be Liam Neeson. Those are
actually constitutes a movie idea? two very different movies. If you were making it with a woman in the
Think of your movie idea like an atom, the building block of all lead it could be Melissa McCarthy or Charlize Theron, depending on
matter. Just as you have no solid, liquid, or gas without atoms, you have the character and context.
no movie without an idea at its center. But atoms themselves consist Now let’s add the character from the actual movie, a perpetually
of smaller components — protons, neutrons and electrons.* Similarly, dissatisfied Pittsburgh weatherman. A perpetually dissatisfied weath-
your movie idea, the foundation of all the work you will do and the erman who lives the same day over and over suggests a comic charac-
pages you will produce, has three essential components — a character, ter in what I now glean to be a comic situation. Pittsburgh tells me
a concept, and a context. A complete movie idea is: this person, in that he’s local. Perpetually dissatisfied suggests he’d rather be working
situation, under these circumstances. Character. Concept. Context. in, and believes himself worthy of, a larger market, like L.A. or New
York, and probably in a more prestigious position, a news anchor per-
haps. Groundhog Day provides not just the title, but the context. It’s
Anatomy of a Movie Idea: The Three C’s February 2nd, the day on the annual calendar when throngs of people
gather in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to see the groundhog and learn
Like protons, neutrons and electrons in the atom, these three compo- if winter is going to extend or spring will come early. So if you’re Danny
nent parts — concept, character, and context — are each so integral Rubin, the original writer of Groundhog Day, and Aunt Irma asks at
to your movie idea that it’s nearly impossible to evaluate the merits of Thanksgiving dinner what the project you’re working on is about, you
any one without considering the others. Let’s take the seminal 1993 might say, “It’s about a perpetually dissatisfied local weatherman who’s
comedy Groundhog Day as an example. Groundhog Day is about a guy sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney,
who lives the same day over and over again. That’s the idea, right? Well, Pennsylvania and ends up stuck in town, living the same day over and
no. That’s only part of the idea. That’s the concept. And it’s a good one over again until he gets it right.”
— at least it was in 1993. A movie concept is a situation that poses a That gives me pretty much all the information I need to tell if this
significant, high-stakes challenge or opportunity to your lead character is a script I’d be interested in reading. I know, first of all, that it’s a com-
or ensemble. A character who’s forced to live the same day over and edy. I can tell this from the character, the location, and the choice of
over is a promising concept, it’s a good jumping off point for a movie Groundhog Day as the story trigger. If it was Friday the 13th, for exam-
idea. But does the concept alone, the situation, tell you what kind of ple, that would leave a very different impression. If it was the day the
movie it is? Not really. It could be the basis of a sci-fi film, a horror protagonist’s wife died, I’d assume something else entirely. I know that
film, a thriller, a comedy. Who’s the star in this situation, a comedian, being stuck in a small town in Western Pennsylvania is pretty much the
a dramatic actor, or an action star? If you were trying to cast the movie last thing a perpetually dissatisfied local weatherman would want to
today based on concept alone, without any other information to go on, have happen to him, which tells me this is a good situation to challenge
the lead character in the movie. We’ll talk more about character later,
* With apologies to Ira Stern, our 10th grade chemistry teacher, this is the extent
in Chapter Four, but for the purpose of framing your idea, the lead
of our knowledge of basic chemistry. character or ensemble you want is one who will be most challenged or

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rewarded by the situation you’ve conceived, and one we want to follow Pictures with hundreds of other unproduced screenplays. Does that
from the beginning of your story through to the end. This dissatisfied mean it wasn’t a bulletproof idea? You decide. We sold Guam as a pitch
weatherman sounds like the right character, or at the very least a very to one studio in 1995. It then moved with its producer to another stu-
good choice for a character stuck in Punxsutawney, living the same day dio, where we worked on it, on and off, for the next ten years. Over
over and over again. Finally, I know from the last phrase, “until he gets those years we worked on the script with five different producers and
it right” that this character is going to change in some way as a result three different directors. Falling just short of a green light, time after
of being stuck here. I might not know precisely what that change is or time, is enormously frustrating and disappointing. But working on that
how it’s going to happen. That’s good. For now, when I consider the project has also given us the opportunity to work with a number of
idea for Groundhog Day, I just want to know that there’s movement really accomplished, talented people — directors, producers, execu-
in the story, growth in the character, and I want to have a sense of the tives — we’d otherwise never have met, and establish professional rela-
tone. Groundhog Day places a good, fun character in a challenging sit- tionships we might otherwise never have formed. And we were paid.
uation, in a context that suggests just the right kind of opportunity for Guam Goes to the Moon helped pay our mortgages and put food on
change and resolution. I’d like to read that. More important, I’d like to our tables. Every professional writer has screenplays on the shelf. In the
see that. Groundhog Day was a bulletproof idea. end, some ideas and scripts prove to be more bulletproof than others.
Here’s one of our favorite movie ideas from early in our own Timing and luck — serendipity — often plays as important a roll in the
career. Guam Goes to the Moon is about a maverick astronaut, expelled process, and the results, as merit. No writer makes everything — not
by NASA, who’s recruited by a billionaire from the U.S. territory of unless they’re financing all their own films. For now, let’s just try to
Guam to put the tiny island on the map by leading a moonshot in an start with a good idea. No, not a good idea . . . a bulletproof idea.
old Russian N-1 rocket.
What do we know from this idea? We know our lead character
has something to prove, to himself and maybe to the world. He didn’t Vetting Your Idea
live up to his potential at NASA. We know he’s being offered a second
chance in the form of this moonshot, which represents a bigger dream So you have your concept, you know who your character is, and you
and accomplishment than even NASA could have offered him. But we know the larger circumstances that elevate your character and concept.
also know that it’s Guam, not exactly a world superpower, and that the You have your movie idea. How do you know if it’s any good? How do
Russians and their N-1 rocket lost the space race to the Americans and you know if it’s an idea people will be excited enough about to get off
the Saturn 5. The old Russian rocket and the setting in the unincorpo- the couch, sign out of Netflix, close their Snapchat or Instagram . . .
rated U.S. island territory of Guam suggest an underdog comedy. And or Tinder, and actually head to a movie theater where they’ll have to
that’s precisely what Guam Goes to the Moon was when we sold it on plop down their hard-earned cash to see your movie? You ask them.
a pitch to 20th Century Fox in 1995 — an underdog comedy in the Seriously, if you want to know if there’s an audience for your movie,
vein of Cool Runnings, Bad News Bears, or more recently, Dodgeball or you have to tell people what you’re working on. At this point, some
Disney’s Million Dollar Arm. writers rush to craft the perfect “logline” for their idea. We would
Guam Goes to the Moon currently sits on a shelf at Paramount strongly urge you not to do that.

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bulletproof the bulletproof movie idea

The Logline screenplay or movie. Trying to encapsulate your movie idea in a logline
at this stage in the process is a mistake, possibly even a trap you’ll spend
A logline is a succinct, one or two sentence description of your screen- hours, days, or weeks trying to climb your way out of. Screenwriting is
play or movie. The classic example, perhaps the origin, is TV Guide. not a science, it’s an art, a creative process. There’s no need to turn this
Back when people actually subscribed to a printed magazine that told process into something contrived before you’ve even put pen to paper,
them what was on television, TV Guide provided a single line that making yourself feel like a failure just because you can’t figure out yet
teased just enough information about a movie or television show for how to sum up your idea in ten words or less. Don’t waste your time
the viewer to know if he or she was interested. Today, streaming ser- with a logline now; save it for later.
vices and the Guide feature on your cable or satellite TV menu also Having said all that, you do need to be able to talk about what
use loglines. Loglines are a useful and important tool, but they’re for you’re working on with people you know and trust and believe can
completed screenplays and movies, not for vetting ideas. And there be helpful. Not in loglines, but in a few simple, clear, conversational
are good reasons for that. First, we don’t speak in loglines. If you were sentences that convey who your movie is about, and what happens to
raving about the movie Baby Driver and your friend asked you what them under what circumstances. Just as we described earlier. If you’re
it was about, would you say, “After being coerced into working for a comfortable with your concept and your character, you should be able
crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist to communicate that succinctly and enthusiastically in conversation.
doomed to fail?”* Probably not. It’s not wrong, it’s just not how human Tell anyone who asks what you do, or what you’re working on. Gauge
beings speak to each other in conversation. Loglines sound canned, their reaction. Do their eyes widen with enthusiasm and anticipation?
and the last thing you want to do when you’re vetting your idea, trying Do they ask questions? Do they ask to hear more? Or do they say, Oh,
to get an enthusiastic reaction from friends or industry contacts, is talk I get it, and then quickly change the subject? Even a look that says, Oh,
about what you’re working on in a way that sounds canned. I get it can suggest that your idea might not spark the same interest in
Second, writers who begin with the logline often invest way too others that it does in you. Or maybe it’s just a smaller, more life-size
much time and energy, subjecting themselves to all sorts of mental and idea. If that’s the case, you should be able to speak about your idea with
written gymnastics, just to come up with that one perfect sentence. a greater level of specificity that brings your more intimate idea to life.
Trust us, what can take hours when you’re at the beginning stages If that happens, you may still be in good shape. If it’s not happening,
will take about thirty seconds after your idea is fully realized and your you may not be sufficiently clear yet about the different aspects of your
screenplay is written. In fact, the wrong or deficient logline can throw idea, or the idea itself may be lacking.
you off course. The process of figuring out your characters, and your In either case: Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You probably
story, going through an outline, and writing a screenplay, will reveal have to dig deeper, or elsewhere. Our hope is that the following pages
all sorts of things you cannot know yet about the relative weight of and chapters will help guide you.
your characters and the prominence of different aspects of your story. Of course, telling people your idea means . . . telling people your
It’s possible that this will impact how you’d describe your finished idea. And some writers are understandably skittish about revealing
their ideas for fear of having them stolen. First, don’t flatter your-
* Logline courtesy of IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt3890160/reference self. We hope your idea is great and wholly unique, the holy grail

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of movie ideas. More likely, there’s one similar to it in development Kaufman, I don’t get it might not scare you. Ever seen Synecdoche, New
somewhere (maybe even one at every studio). That can be a problem York? But if you’re like us, and you aspire to write accessible movies
if the idea and the rendering are too close to what’s been done. But aimed to appeal to larger audiences, I don’t get it is not a great sign. It
it doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. As Ecclesiastes wrote over means that either you haven’t figured out how to communicate your
two thousand years ago, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Your idea effectively or there’s something about the idea itself that doesn’t
finished screenplay should incorporate elements we’ve not seen before quite add up. In either case, you have to go back to the drawing board
in the movies — visuals or language, characters or plot devices, a fresh and figure that out. Presumably, if you’ve made a decision to make a go
perspective, ideas for comic set pieces or action sequences. It should be of screenwriting, you have some kind of creative community of sup-
the kind of script financiers and marketing people will be interested in port around you — a writing group, people who work in the indus-
because they see a way to sell it to audiences. The idea you’re looking try, friends from work you talk about movies with, family members.
for is one that provides an opportunity for unique execution, and the If you don’t, you should. You want these people to be excited about
potential for an eager audience. But unique in some way does not mean what you’re working on, just as you are. You may even want them to
unique in every way. In fact, unique in every way can also mean unrelat- read pages as you write. J.K. Rowling said, “No story lives unless some-
able, inaccessible, untethered . . . . Let’s say, though, just for the sake of one wants to listen.” If the idea you’re pursuing appeals only to you
argument, that you have come up with something truly original. Let’s and no one else, it’s hard to see how that can be a worthwhile invest-
say you’re Lilly & Lana Wachowski and you’ve just birthed the idea for ment of your time. If you don’t have any kind of creative community
The Matrix (which is really a repackaged version of the classic hero’s around you and you’re serious about trying to become a screenwriter,
journey story). The Matrix is a prime example of I’ve gotta have it. Do you should find one. Or move. Seriously. It’s too hard to do this work,
you really think that anyone but the Wachowskis could have executed let alone succeed in it, in a vacuum. You need to be exposed to, and in
the idea for The Matrix in the way that they did? Don’t worry so much conversation with, other creative people whose opinions and points of
about people stealing your ideas. It’s your idea, you came up with it. If view you respect, whose companionship you value and enjoy. You need
you’re half the writer you think you are, no one else out there will be the help and support of people who really understand what it is you’ve
able to render it as you would, in that I’ve gotta have it way.* undertaken.
What if you don’t get an enthusiastic response to your idea? What If you’ve vetted your idea with the right people, and the right num-
if you don’t even get a lukewarm response? Should you assume that ber of people, you’ll notice that the bulletproof movie idea is not one
people “just don’t get it,” that they don’t appreciate your unique talents that simply rehashes old concepts (“It’s The Hangover for women . . . ”
and ability to execute, and persist? Mmm . . . probably not. Not with “It’s Fast and the Furious in space . . . !”). The best and most impactful
this idea. Even worse than Yeah, I get it is Sorry, I don’t get it. Trust us, ideas contribute something new to their genre, to the ongoing creative
we know this from personal experience. If you’re Spike Jonze or Charlie conversation that takes place in the movies. Think about Jordan Peele’s
Get Out, Diablo Cody’s Juno, Judd Apatow’s 40 Year-Old Virgin. All
originals. These are “water cooler movies,” in addition to being signif-
* That said, once you’ve got a good synopsis of your screenplay on paper,
let’s be safe and register that idea with the Writers Guild of America at
icant hits. They created buzz. Does Thor: Ragnarock contribute to the
www.wgawregistry.org, shall we? creative conversation of the movies? Maybe not as much. But you’re

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not going to get the job writing that movie, certainly not before you’ve Those five years were our journey from I don’t get it, past Yeah, I get
turned some heads with a bulletproof original screenplay. Why did it, until we finally reached I’ve gotta have it. We’re trying to save you
Rian Johnson get the job writing and directing Star Wars: The Last a little time by sharing our own experience and some insights we’ve
Jedi, Episode VIII in the franchise, which grossed over a billion dollars gleaned along the way. The journey for you might take much less time,
in less than two weeks? Because he wrote and directed a really cool, or it might take more. Pursue it as long as you love it, as long as you’re
attention grabbing original movie called Looper five years earlier. This drawn to it, and as long as you can do it responsibly without causing
is the value and the importance of your bulletproof original, and it harm to yourself or others. The rewards when things finally click can be
begins with your idea. tremendously satisfying.
So there’s a bit of a double standard. Hollywood is desperate
for proven concepts and properties, things we’ve seen before, that
are familiar and therefore easier and less expensive to market. But Finding Your Idea’s Place in the Landscape:
Hollywood is not looking for that from you, the aspiring writer. From Studio vs. Indie Ideas
you, Hollywood is looking for a fresh new voice . . . that they can then
hire to write installments of familiar franchises. Michael Arndt wrote Does your movie idea have to be a giant, expensive, tent pole idea?
Little Miss Sunshine, one of the freshest and most satisfying indepen- No. It doesn’t hurt, but no. A bold independent film script can do as
dent films of the last twenty years. That was his first produced screen- much for your writing career as a spec for a big, expensive studio movie.
play, an original. He also wrote Toy Story 3, which was inspired, inspir- See the above-mentioned examples, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine
ing and fabulous, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So, yeah . . . there’s and Looper. Look at the writing careers of Kenneth Lonergan, Lena
something a little hypocritical about Hollywood. Studios are looking Dunham, and Tom McCarthy. So how do you know if the idea you’ve
for the fresh and the familiar at the very same time. If this bothers or come up with, and the movie you want to write, is a studio movie or
confounds you, get over it. Being bitter and resentful and contrary an independent film? Generally speaking, studio movies feature larg-
only creates one more barrier to entry — your own attitude. And there er-than-life characters in larger-than-life situations. Think about The
are enough barriers to entry as it is, you do not need one more. Prove Martian. Matt Damon, a movie star, plays Mark Watney, an astro-
yourself by being fresh and original so that the powers-that-be might naut-scientist who is accidentally abandoned and left for dead by his
one day come to you asking for the safer and more familiar. We were crewmates on Mars as they’re fleeing a deadly storm. He then engages
asked to write a film adaptation of the television series My Three Sons in a race against the clock to communicate with NASA and devise a
because of the original script we wrote for The Family Man. It may be way to get off the Red Planet before he runs out of the resources he
true that there’s nothing new under the sun. That doesn’t mean that needs to survive. Now consider, by contrast, Ellen Page’s character
a screenwriter working on assignment has to surrender creativity and in Juno, written by Diablo Cody. Page, a relative newcomer and an
originality. There’s always a fresh, new and attention-grabbing way to unknown at the time of the film’s release, plays offbeat 16 year-old high
approach something we’ve all seen before. school student Juno MacGuff, who becomes pregnant as the result of
Finally, a word of encouragement. It took us five years before a one-time sexual encounter with her friend Paulie Bleeker, played by
we had an idea that became a script that we could sell to a studio. Michael Cera. Juno decides to defy expectations and eschew aborting

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the pregnancy in favor of carrying the baby to term and turning it over movies, can’t they? Well, yes and no. If you turn your original screen-
to more suitable parents, played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. play in to Sony Pictures on the same weekend as the writer who’s just
Complications ensue, but the situation and characters in Juno really are finished penning the latest installment in the Spiderman franchise, the
not at all larger than life. The story is witty and clever and emotionally studio executives will not apply the same standards and criteria to the
rich, but it’s quite life size. Juno’s journey over the course of the movie two scripts in deciding which gets made. They’re making Spiderman.
wouldn’t even merit a headline in the local newspaper, but the movie Even if it needs tons of additional script work at a cost of millions of
was a critical darling and an audience favorite. And Diablo Cody has dollars, they’re making that movie. Whether or not they make your
gone on to a successful and enduring career writing for movies and original screenplay is entirely discretionary. Your original script,
television. whether character or concept driven, must hit the bulls-eye. It has to
Lady Bird is another example. Saoirse Ronan plays the title char- be bulletproof. Execution-dependent ideas are harder to sell and get
acter in the coming of age drama about an eccentric high school stu- made, independently and especially at studios, they require a screen-
dent in Sacramento who dreams of getting out, beginning with col- play that really packs a punch. Of course, if the spec you’ve written is
lege. She has a deep and complicated relationship with her mother, Get Out, or Moonlight, or Manchester by the Sea, you have nothing to
played by Laurie Metcalf, who wants her to remain close to home at worry about.
a more affordable college. The script is terrific. The movie is terrific. It
will not make as much money or be seen by as many people as Wonder
Woman, the DC Comics-based story of Amazonian warrior Diana, Is This the Idea for Me?
played by Gal Gadot, who leaves home and joins an American pilot
in 20th Century Europe to fight with the Allies in World War I. But So now you have your idea. You’ve vetted it and determined that it
Greta Gerwig’s screenplay for Lady Bird created a tremendous amount feels fresh, or at least promises a fresh approach. You understand where
of buzz. It was nominated for an Oscar. It’s added to the ongoing con- it sits on the landscape of studio and independent movies. So . . . is
versation that takes place in the movies. Greta Gerwig has written a this the screenplay you should write? Probably, yes. But sometimes
bulletproof screenplay. not. You have to ask yourself if this is an idea you can write effectively.
So a bulletproof idea can be an indie or a studio idea. The real dif- Every writer is stronger in certain areas than others. Your idea won’t be
ference can typically be found in the scale of the stories and the relative bulletproof, it really can’t be, if you don’t feel you’re the best person to
weight given to the three C’s of the idea. Independent movies tend to write it. Know your orientation and your skill set as a writer. Let that
lean more on character than concept. They’re also less likely to cap- determine which ideas you choose to pursue, and which ones you hold
ture the interest of buyers based on the idea alone, unless the buyer off on, let go of entirely, or perhaps even pass along to others. We’re not
is already familiar with and interested in the writer. Character-driven particularly inventive when it comes to conceiving action sequences.
ideas are generally referred to as “execution dependent.” That may And generally speaking, we don’t write action movies. If you’ve come
sound silly. Aren’t all movies execution dependent? High concept and up with a concept for a horror film, and you haven’t seen a horror film
franchise-driven movies can be botched as easily as character-driven since you were twelve, it’s possible you should not be writing this idea,

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at least not in this way. Consider again the concept for Groundhog Day. we wrote a screenplay called People of Girth about four frustrated,
That could have been developed as a horror film.* Perhaps you can spin binge-eating customers who take over a 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet
your horror idea into a comedy or some other genre you’re more com- and hold the manager hostage after he tries to kick them out. People of
fortable writing. If not, you may have to hand it off to a friend who Girth turned some heads as an idea and as a completed screenplay, but
loves horror, or partner with someone who has a real passion for and the script was far from bulletproof. In fact, it was riddled with exactly
command of the genre. Or you can try it yourself. Maybe you’ll discover the kinds of holes we’re writing this book to help you avoid. We did not
something about yourself and your writing you’d never have expected. make a penny from People of Girth, but for all its shortcomings there
You may even have something new to contribute to the genre as a rela- were those who appreciated the potential of the concept and the comic
tive outsider. In general, though, you’re likely best off writing the kinds voice of the script. It was a reasonably good writing sample.
of movies you most like to watch. If you’ve never thought about that A writing sample is a script that displays your talent in some fash-
before, think about it now. It may save you an enormous amount of ion and can help to start a conversation with industry professionals
time as you work to define your creative voice and determine what you — managers or agents or producers — even if the script you’ve written
have to add to the conversation of the movies. isn’t “the one,” even if it doesn’t sell. So with People of Girth, we had
Think carefully about the movies you love most. Not “The Best” what we hoped was a writing sample that might land us an agent. Those
movies. Don’t consult AFI’s top 100 list. We all know Citizen Kane’s hopes, it turned out, were in vain. Mostly. We submitted the script to
great and we all love The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2. We’re talking about twenty different agents. All of the agents passed (including one who
the movies you love, your favorites. Comedies, dramas, thrillers, action signed his generally complimentary rejection letter, “a lifelong member
movies, horror movies, sci-fi . . . What are the movies that you can return of Weight Watchers”). All but one, that is.
to time after time without ever getting tired of them? The ones that Jordan Bayer had recently left one of the big agencies and struck
come up when you’re channel surfing and you simply can’t help your- out on his own, establishing the boutique agency, Original Artists. He
self from watching the rest, no matter where it is in the story, because read People of Girth and asked if we wanted to meet for breakfast. Over
you just love it that much? (Okay, go ahead and keep The Godfather.) a couple of smoked fish platters at the long since closed Stage Deli in
Make the list. Pick five or ten. Twenty. It’s actually a very good and Century City, Jordan told us he didn’t think he could sell our script, but
helpful exercise in determining the kind of movie you’re likely to enjoy that we showed a fresh comic voice that was potentially more commer-
working on and the kind you might, in fact, be best suited to write. Let cial than the script we’d written. He told us that if we really wanted, he
these movies be your North Star in the genre you choose to pursue, could send People of Girth out to some producers and executives, and
in the quality you strive for, and in the general inspiration you find that maybe the writing sample would generate a few meetings. From
within them. those meetings, he continued, maybe an idea would emerge that we
A final anecdote from the beginning of our own career to illustrate could then go and pitch, and that maybe, just maybe, we could find
the process and importance of arriving at the bulletproof idea: In 1993, a studio to pay us Writers Guild minimum to write a script. But that
was a real long shot and it was not the path Jordan was recommending.
*In fact, it was many years later, see 2017’s Happy Death Day, written by Scott
The path that Jordan was recommending was for us to start over from
Lobdell, from Blumhouse Productions. scratch with a more mainstream, commercial idea. A bulletproof idea.

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He even offered to help us vet these ideas. He had no idea what he was We were devastated. But something inside us — very possibly des-
getting himself into. peration — told us this was the one. We just hadn’t done it right. So
Two weeks later, determined to make the most of his offer and the we packed our bags, jumped in the car, and drove to Vegas to figure out
opportunity, we were back at the Stage Deli, only this time we came how and where we’d gone so wrong. We booked a room at the Sahara
prepared with sixteen original ideas. Sixteen! That’s about eleven to for fifteen bucks a night and headed for the Fashion Show Mall for a
thirteen more than anyone not married to you should reasonably be bite. We sat at the food court there, and we asked ourselves a simple
expected to listen to. But we were young and inexperienced, and more question that cracked the entire process of writing our script open for
than a little over-eager. We’d finally found someone we believed could us and planted the seed for the bulletproof approach we’re sharing in
help jumpstart our career, and we weren’t about to let him go until this book.
we’d road tested pretty much every idea we ever had. It wasn’t until the This was a movie about a 12 year-old who becomes a genius mag-
very end, when all the lox and whitefish was gone from our plates and ically. It was the kind of movie Disney might have made at the time,
Jordan’s weary eyes were beginning to glaze over, that we finally pitched long before they acquired Marvel and LucasFilm and Pixar. So we asked
a concept that caught his attention. It was about a slacker twelve year- ourselves, “If Disney were making our movie, what would it look like?”
old who becomes a genius magically overnight, upsetting the expecta- For the first time, we looked at our idea from the top down, from the
tions of his friends, his family, and his teachers. This was 1993, when studio’s perspective, and when we did that the answers came so quickly
Macaulay Culkin was one of the biggest stars on the planet. There was and clearly it was as if the heavens had opened and the angels were
an appetite at the studios for family comedies with younger leads — singing. We could barely write the ideas for our characters and the steps
that is, a path to getting the movie made. Jordan thought there might of our story down fast enough. Not because we’d discovered some kind
be something there if we could just bring the fresh comic voice of People of secret formula. There is no formula. But because, for the first time,
of Girth to this more studio-friendly idea. That’s all we needed to hear. we could see a structure and a tone that would result in a movie that
We wrote two drafts of our child genius script and neither gained a studio with a particular brand might release, that they could market
much traction with Jordan. After the first he gave us an extensive list to the public, and that people might get excited about and come to see
of notes and questions to consider. We tried our best to implement with their families. The creative decisions, the story choices, of which
those notes and respond to those questions. We treated them like we’d there are hundreds in every script, weren’t just about us anymore, and
just been given the answers to the test, figuring that we simply could what we might find funny, or scary, or clever. They were also about our
not fail if we just followed his instructions. We were wrong. There’s an future partner, the studio. They were about what movies actually look
art to responding to notes just as there is to writing an original script, like when you see the finished product in the theater. By the end of our
and we simply hadn’t acquired the wisdom, experience, or tools yet to lunch, bursting with confidence and enthusiasm, we sent Jordan a post-
understand how best to incorporate his feedback.* After he read our card with the message that we’d cracked the idea and he’d be hearing
second draft he called and delivered the bad news, “Guys,” he said, “this from us again in a few weeks time.
may not be the one.” A few weeks later we emerged, as promised, with a new draft for
Jordan to read. He was finally able to see the concept he’d first heard
* More on responding to notes in Chapter Nine. at the Stage Deli born out in the manner he’d imagined. And though

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chapter two
there was still some rewriting to do, the work going forward was differ-
ent. We weren’t feeling around in the dark, getting carried away with
ideas we’d come to almost arbitrarily. We understood what kind of
movie this was, who it was for — what kind of buyer and what kind
of audience. We’d endured a few massive wrong turns and a painfully
steep learning curve to get there. But with a good amount of deter-
mination and persistence on our part, and patience on Jordan’s, we
finally emerged in the spring of 1994 with a script for a coming-of-age
comedy called The Whiz Kid. Within four days of reading our official
submission draft, Jordan got a young Elijah Wood attached to star and
sold the script to 20th Century Fox as part of a two-picture deal worth
almost $750,000, significantly more than Writers Guild minimum.
After five years of trying, we’d finally sold a movie to a major studio.
Our career was launched. But it wasn’t that studio offer that marked
the launch. It was the shift in perspective and approach that took place
at the food court of the Fashion Show Mall in Vegas. It was the ques-
tion, How would Disney do it? that encapsulated the simultaneous bot-
finding bulletproof
tom-up and top-down approach to screenwriting we’ve applied ever
since. That is the essence of the bulletproof process that has served us
throughout our career and which guides the work we’re going to do
models
with you going forward.
If you were raising a child, you might identify certain attributes
you’d like to cultivate within that child — kindness, generosity, humil-
ity, courage, self-confidence, etc. You’d look to people in your life,
family members, community members, people you know about but
whom you may never have met, who exemplify these qualities. You’d
learn what you could from these people and you’d use them as exam-
ples as you raise and guide your child. These people are models for the
kind of person you hope your child will become, or at least for some of
the qualities you hope they’ll grow to possess. You’re not encouraging
your child to be someone they’re not. You want them to be unique in
the world, while also learning and internalizing all the valuable lessons
there are to learn from those who’ve come before.

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bulletproof finding bulletproof models

So, too, in the movies. You’re not creating and writing in a vacuum. parents or your spouse roll their eyes when you tell them you’re “work-
Some aspects of what you’re trying to do with your screenplay have ing,” or “doing research.” You just have to watch Home Alone, Inception,
been done by others, perhaps with great success. You want to learn The Shawshank Redemption . . . iconic movies from your genre that help
from these writers and from their movies. You want to benefit as much frame the creative conversation you aspire to be a part of.
as possible from the successes and the failures of those who’ve come
before and the movie models they’ve provided for you.
By now you have an idea you’re passionate about. You’ve got your Taking Your Place at the Table
concept, your character, and your context. You know the genre you’re
writing in. You’ve talked about it with people whose opinions you trust Of course, finding the right models for your movie is not just about
and respect, and you’re feeling pretty good, confident that if you exe- attracting buzz and being film literate. It’s also about writing the best
cute this idea well, this spec could mark the beginning of your career. script you can write, being the best writer you can be. Think about
That’s a great feeling. Embrace it. Enjoy it. At some point not too long your idea. Who are the master screenwriters of your genre? We started
from now the work is going to get harder, and that confidence and out in the mid-90s writing concept and character-driven comedies
enthusiasm may be more difficult to maintain. But we’re not there yet. that aimed to be funny, thematically rich, and emotionally satisfying.
This is the fun part. In fact, this may be the most fun you’ll have at The writers whose movies we looked to probably more than anyone
work until you actually sell your script. This is the part where you get else’s were Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (Night Shift, Splash, City
to watch lots of movies — the models for the script you’re about to Slickers, Parenthood). What are the iconic movies that are the anteced-
write. Familiarizing yourself with, and analyzing, the models for your ents to the script you’re writing? Imagine a table with the writers, direc-
screenplay will help illuminate the path your story needs to follow and tors and producers who’ve made the biggest contribution to your genre
expose mistakes and blind alleys for you to avoid. It’s also a critical step sitting around it. Who’s at that table? What are the movies that earned
in writing a bulletproof screenplay. them a seat? You need to know these movies inside and out before
Again, your goal is a script that gets talked about, that attracts buzz. there’s a seat there for you.
How do you achieve that? How do you attract the kind of attention When we were developing The Family Man, our production execu-
and conversation that gets your script noticed and passed from one tive, Jon Shestack, gave us a very specific and inspiring charge. He told
stakeholder to the next in the Hollywood chain? By adding some- us he wanted our movie to be the one future filmmakers would look to
thing to your genre, by doing something in a way it hasn’t been done as they craft similar stories of their own. Years later, we were told that
before. Think about The Hangover in comedy. Deadpool in the super- executives at Disney Animation had referenced The Family Man as a
hero genre. Get Out in horror. You cannot add to the creative conver- model in story meetings. You want your movie on the list others will
sation that takes place in and around the movies unless you’re familiar someday look to and talk about. You want a seat at that table. You want
with the movies that have framed and shaped that conversation thus to become the model. Set the bar high and learn from the best.
far. Literacy counts. In fact, it’s essential. The good news is, we’re not To be clear and to reiterate, this is not about trying to discern a for-
talking about real literacy. You don’t have to go out and read Beowulf mula for you to follow in the writing of your own script. There are no
or Middlemarch. This is movie literacy — the kind that makes your formulas. It’s not about copying movies that have come before. It’s about

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bulletproof finding bulletproof models

learning from them, understanding better the language of your own Compare Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What
movie. Learning from your predecessors does not make you any less of do you notice about the way each of these movies attempts to draw
an original talent. Guillermo del Toro and Wes Anderson draw inspi- us into the story, and the way the various characters and plot lines are
ration and lessons from other filmmaker’s movies, too! Don’t try to developed and tied together? Which did this more effectively, and
reinvent the wheel from scratch. You don’t score points for originality why? Are you writing a family comedy? Take a look at Daddy’s Home
just for originality’s sake. You score points for what works. And what and compare it with our movie Old Dogs. We love Old Dogs and it’s
works, what has always worked, is original work that shows respect for tremendously satisfying when kids who grew up watching the movie
dramatic and genre conventions and builds on what’s come before. quote lines back to us. But Daddy’s Home is a more fully realized movie.
So consider your idea, and now think about comparable movies And it was more commercially successful; it spawned a sequel. Why?
that have some similarities to what you’re trying to do conceptually, What’s the difference? Take a look at the John Hughes family come-
that use a similar character as a protagonist. Start making a list. You’re dies. Watch Uncle Buck.
going to be watching these movies. If you’ve seen them before, you’re The day we arrived in Vegas and headed to the Fashion Show
going to be watching them again. They will look different to you now Mall to figure out where we’d gone wrong on our first two drafts of
that you’re trying to write something in the same genre, or with a simi- The Whiz Kid, the essence of our epiphany was that we hadn’t chosen
lar character, device, or story engine. List the great movies and the bad the right models for our movie. If we had just asked ourselves “How
movies; you can learn from all of them. But take special note of the would Disney do it?” at the very beginning, instead of beating our heads
good ones, the ones that get it right. Go first to the iconic. Do this for against the wall trying to come up with any and every possible conse-
the obvious reason that you want to learn from the best, but do it also quence of our protagonist’s granted wish, we might have saved our-
for the opportunity it provides to clear the highest bar and overcome selves months of work and anguish, not to mention the time of the
the most challenging obstacles standing between where you are now agent who was helping guide us. We were a wish fulfillment comedy
and where you aspire to be. To earn a seat at the table. about a twelve year-old who magically becomes a genius. What’s the
model? Big. That’s the movie, right? Not the movie we want to copy, the
movie we want to learn from, to use as our bar, our North Star.
Watching with a Discerning Eye In or around the year Big was released there were two other adult/
child body-switching comedies released — Like Father, Like Son, star-
Once you have your list of the movies that have gotten it right and the ring Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, and Vice Versa, with Judge
ones that have gone slightly or even horribly awry, start watching. Take Reinhold and Fred Savage. Of the three, Big was the critical and fan
notes. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. What’s the favorite, and the only one to garner Academy Award nominations for
structure? Is the movie too plot-heavy and confusing? Is it simple and its writers and star, Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, and Tom Hanks. It
elegant? How does the writer establish the lead character? How does wasn’t just a commercially successful movie, it was a really good movie,
the movie open? How many set pieces are there and how do they func- funny and poignant. Big was at the time, and may well remain today,
tion in the story? Are there multiple storylines? If so, how do they con- the best of its genre. What better model for The Whiz Kid, and for us
nect, how are they integrated? Are you writing a sci-fi adventure script? as writers, than Big?

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bulletproof finding bulletproof models

Of course, there were other models. What about Rookie of the Year? themes or shared a similar conceit, and they all provided instruction
Not a film you’re likely to find on AFI’s top 100. You might not even and inspiration, goals to shoot for and pitfalls to avoid.
remember it, or ever have heard of it. But Rookie of the Year, released in The models you choose now will be useful to you throughout the
1995, was about a 12 year-old baseball lover whose broken arm heals in process of writing your script, and after. As you discover more and more
a way that allows him to pitch over 100 miles per hour, earning him a about your story and your characters, and the conventions of your
spot on the Cubs pitching roster. A coming-of-age fantasy fulfillment genre, you may add to your list of movies to watch for instruction and
story, like ours. It had just come out at the time we were writing The return to others you’ve already looked at. When you sell your movie,
Whiz Kid and it had done very well for its studio, Twentieth Century and sit down with studio executives for the first time to get script notes
Fox. Rookie of the Year was on our list of models, once we finally fig- and talk about the way forward, some of these models may find their
ured out what kind of movie we were writing, along with pretty much way into the conversation, and new ones may be introduced.
every other coming-of-age fantasy fulfillment comedy we could come We’ll never forget the first studio meeting we had at Paramount
up with. Now, The Whiz Kid was not produced. It has not become, Pictures when producer Mark Gordon brought our script Guam Goes
like Big, the movie others point to if they’re interested in writing in to the Moon over with him from Fox. Our new studio executive was
this genre. But it did launch our career, it was our first big spec sale. Paramount V.P. of Production Don Granger. The reason we’ll never
And guess who bought it? Twentieth Century Fox . . . for Bob Harper, forget this meeting, which took place over twenty years ago, is that
producer of Rookie of the Year! Finding the right models is essential, Don Granger gave us perhaps the best and most inspiring script notes
practical, and, if our own career is any indication, effective. we’ve ever received. What was so great about his notes? First, he had
a copy of our script on his lap with a few lines scribbled on the cover,
but he never actually opened our script, nor did he consult a memo
Finding Inspiration and Information in put together for him by a junior creative executive at the company. He
Those Who’ve Come Before was, at least for this first meeting, focused solely on the big picture.
Don Granger understood the movie Guam Goes to the Moon wanted
When we were writing The Family Man, we spent a good bit of time to be. Before he said a word about our screenplay or what he thought
talking about Groundhog Day, Peggy Sue Got Married, Heaven Can we needed to change and why, he talked with us about the tradition
Wait, and It’s a Wonderful Life — movies about characters who have an of movies like Guam that inspired him and contributed to his interest
opportunity to see their lives from a different perspective, how it might in being in this business. He mentioned classic films like The Guns of
have turned out under other circumstances. We also talked about the Navarone and drew us into an enthusiastic conversation, a movie lov-
less distinguished Jim Belushi vehicle Mr. Destiny, about an adult char- er’s conversation, about the relative merits of Navarone, A Bridge Too
acter who attributes all the problems in his life to having missed the Far and Bridge on the River Kwai. Only then did he turn to the business
“big catch” in a high school championship game. He then gets to see at hand and say, “Okay, now let’s talk about Guam.” He then identi-
what his life would have looked like had he made that catch. None fied four areas that he believed were critically important to our movie
of these movies was our movie precisely, but they all explored similar and how there were opportunities for us to mine these areas further

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bulletproof

chapter three
and come up with something more impactful. Once he knew that we
understood the difference between where we were and where we all
wanted to be, the meeting was over. That was it. No line notes, no scene
notes, no character notes, except as they related to the big idea of our
movie — the character (or, in this case, ensemble of characters), the
concept, and the context. When we finished our rewrite, the studio
hired a director and began the campaign to make the movie.
As in life, so too in the movies — models are important. They’re
important in the embryonic stage, when you’re still defining your idea
and establishing your dreams and visions for what it might become,
they’re important while you’re writing, looking for direction within
your structure and within individual scenes, and they’re important
when you’re revising and refining, moving ever closer to the great
movie your screenplay yearns to be.
Now go have the most fun you’ll ever have doing homework. Make
your list of models and start watching!
the bulletproof
“one-pager”
Here’s what’s going to happen a few months from now when
you’ve completed a submission draft of your screenplay and you’re
ready to turn it in to a manager, agent, or producer: They’re going to
give it to someone to read and evaluate it for them. That may seem
ridiculous to you. How hard is it to read a hundred-page screenplay?!
This is everything that’s wrong with Hollywood! No wonder movies are
so awful; no one reads the scripts! You can add this outrage to your list
of things to get over as you navigate your way to success. Managers,
agents, and executives have assistants, interns, and freelance script read-
ers evaluate screenplays because there simply and literally isn’t enough
time in the day for them to read all of the scripts that are submitted
to them while also servicing their clients and their current projects in

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